Mind Over Matter: How A Little Optimism Can Improve Your Health

The health benefits of having a generally positive outlook and approach to life are well known: longer life expectancy, higher resistance to illness, more fulfilling relationships, better work productivity, and the list goes on.

August 21, 2015
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When things don’t go our way, suggestions to simply “think positive!” or “look on the bright side” can come off as trite and irritating. Why even try to be optimistic when going through heartbreak, financial problems, stress, failure, or any other emotional curveballs life throws at us?

One of the challenges of being optimistic is that we are biologically wired to focus on what is negative in order to protect ourselves. It can be much easier to identify when something is off in our lives (because it disrupts our normal routine) than it is to feel at peace when there is no problem or threat. In what social scientist Dennis Prager calls “The Missing Tile Syndrome,” human beings are more prone to see what’s absent or wrong than they are to focus on what’s present or right. So yes, there is certainly justification for a “woe is me” attitude, but I urge you to fight that natural tendency and try out a little optimism. Your soul and body may thank you!

The health benefits of having a generally positive outlook and approach to life are well known: longer life expectancy, higher resistance to illness, more fulfilling relationships, better work productivity, and the list goes on. Think of the people you know who could be called optimists. These individuals are probably well liked, and others usually feel confident and valued in their presence and notice that life is generally more pleasant in their company. The physical, mental, and social implications of optimism are far reaching and significant.

Because positive thinking has so many health and wellness benefits, it’s important to cultivate an attitude of optimism. Are some people just born optimists, whereas others tend more toward negative thoughts and attitudes? No matter what your natural disposition, there are some simple yet powerful steps you can take to increase your optimism. Here are a few suggestions:

Allow Yourself to Experience Disappointment

This may seem counterintuitive initially; optimism is about being happy, right? Yes, but being optimistic doesn’t mean you are naïve to reality or denying painful emotions. In fact, a good number of people who are generally sad or who may be thought of as “downers” are that way because they haven’t properly processed difficult experiences. Give yourself permission to grieve your losses. Neil Pasricha, author of the Webby Award–winning blog “1000 Awesome Things,” said, “Don’t force yourself out of the dark spots. Let them be dark, just remind yourself that there are good spots at the end.”

Use Failures and Mistakes as Learning Opportunities

One of the hallmarks of optimists is that they are resilient to hardship and are effectively able to recover or bounce back. Every experience can teach you a valuable lesson, and I’d venture to say that we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Spend Time With the Right People

You can tell a lot about someone by the people they choose as close friends. Are the people you spend time with always complaining, insulting others, gossiping, and emphasizing all that is wrong in the world? There is certainly a lot to say about all the problems we face, and there is a time and place to voice these complaints, but chronic negative talk is exhausting. Constant negativity can dampen your spirit, especially if you’re already feeling low or carrying a heavy burden. Look for people who energize, motivate, and inspire you. Even if you find yourself in unavoidable situations with negative people (like at work), seek out a church leader, family member, or neighbor you know you can trust as an ally.

Count Your Blessings

It’s amazing how simply identifying the positive, beautiful things in our lives can bring light to dark days. Do you have a college degree? What freedoms do you enjoy? Are you in a stable relationship? Is your body in good health? These are just a few questions to ask yourself that may yield positive results to help you realize just how good you’ve got it. Consider starting a gratitude journal so you can remember and reflect on your blessings.

Unplug for a Bit

Reading about current events is a surefire way to be reminded of troubles in the world. I am not suggesting that you cut yourself off from reality to shield yourself from pain. But in our tech age, it’s very possible to overload your mind and spirit with bad news. If you find that you’re feeling weighed down by these influences, limit the amount of time you spend on certain websites or publications; it’s okay to tune out some of the sad stuff.

How has being optimist helped youWhat actions can you take to become more optimistic?

NOTE: If you find that dark, pessimistic thoughts are interfering with your ability to function or lead a normal life, a trained mental health professional can help you. If your feelings are overwhelming or debilitating to the point that you’ve considered suicide, seek help immediately.

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